Towards the Decent Inn

XIII

By Michael Arram

As the end of semester approached, Andy became more and more insistent that Matt should join him for Christmas. Matt, thinking of his neglected parents, said no. Andy then changed tack and wanted him to come over and join him for the last week at Burnett. This was possible, as the British universities finished a week earlier than the American. But what about the money?

In mid November, a package for Matt arrived at their door, which Paul signed for. It contained Andy's British Airways pass, reissued in Matt's name. It also included open flight tickets to Newark NJ in the name of Paul Oscott.

'Damn, he's cunning,' said Matt, to a speechless Paul. 'He knew that if he included you, I'd be a bastard to say no.'

'We're going to America!' Paul regained his voice.

'OK, OK! You're going to America'

'First class! I've never flown anywhere! And I'm going first class to the USA.'

'Shit. We've got to go Swansea again.' Paul looked puzzled. 'Passport!'

'Oh.'

Matt was not all that happy with the finer points of the arrangement. But they had enough money to book shuttle flights from Newark to Syracuse, where Andy would meet them in his car. They were not cheap, but the stash which Andy had left him could easily take the damage. He had not needed to touch it, other than to buy essentials for Paul; essentials, which had included a pair of glasses. Persistent blurring of vision and headaches had finally driven Paul to an optician, and glasses were the result. It miraculously transformed his face, from that of an urchin to that of an intense intellectual. He had compounded it by growing a straggling and unimpressive goatee, which made him look a little like a merry, young Trotsky. Matt phoned the airline and booked return seats for the second week of December, and they were off.

Paul's excitement increased to the point where he was almost intolerable to live with. He bought guide books and maps and pored over them all evening. It was almost a relief when Matt got down the bags and began filling them. A relief, because Paul suddenly developed an anxiety about the actual experience of flying, and went very quiet.

They caught a very early morning train to Reading, and from there transferred to the shuttle bus; it was cheaper than going into London. Heathrow was a wonderland for Paul. The liminality of the place appealed to him, indeed, it seemed to echo a part of his complicated personality. It was a place of transitions, vast and thronged with mobs of travelling humanity. Once through check-in and security you were in a curious dimension between destinations and nations. It had no culture, and yet included every culture.

'And this is the first time you've been in an airport?'

'Uhuh.'

'It's a cultural study in its own right.'

Paul was bemused by the glitter and sumptuousness of the acres of duty free shops. He roamed through the glass pyramids of perfume and towers of cigarette cartons. 'So why would I want to buy this stuff? I'd just save a few quid and have to carry it for thousands of miles?'

'It's the liminality of it, Paulie. People in transit buy things to lessen their feelings of insecurity. Retailers know that.'

'Insecurity just makes me want to go to the toilet. Which reminds me... hang on I'll be back.'

They took advantage of their tickets to check in to the first-class Hi-fliers lounge. Paul positively vibrated with excitement when a member of a current boy-band sat opposite him, reading a soccer magazine.

Matt whispered in his ear, 'But you hate them.'

'So what, I can dine off this for months.'

Matt restrained him from asking the tired-looking star for a photo with him, or even an autograph. 'That's why they have first-class lounges. It's a refuge for them.'

Paul was disgruntled, but the impending take-off soon diverted him. It was with a fixed and sweating face that he took his comfortable seat in the brand-new jet. Matt tried to divert him with the seat computer, but it didn't help. He looked as ghastly as he had done when he went on the London Eye. He was gripping Matt's hand hard as the plane finally catapulted itself into the air. He was muttering the Angelus by the time the plane had levelled off, and he dared open his eyes.

After that, when it appeared that they would not fall out of the sky after all, Paul became relatively normal. This was assisted by the fact that the stewardesses appeared to find him puppy-like and irresistible, and he exploited it mercilessly. One of them even sat down next to him and started chatting, a thing Matt had never seen before in an aircraft.

'I think she was trying to take me mind off the stress of flying,' he announced, smugly, when she left him after twenty minutes of mild flirtation.

Matt, whose looks usually tended to get him the lion's share of attention, rather appreciated being ignored, but the boy-band star kept eyeing him up from across the cabin in a way that raised Matt's suspicions. In the end curiosity caused him to pause on his return from a toilet visit to strike up a conversation, and get an autograph for Paul. He was asked to take a seat next to him. He found the boy pretty, but a bit tongue-tied and shy to begin with. In the end Matt had to admit that he didn't seem all that bright; he was quite naïve and sweet but only had one topic of conversation, himself. It was not a topic that Matt could raise much enthusiasm for, and he ignored the awkward attempts to hit on him.

Landing at Newark was less of a trial than taking off had been at Heathrow, until Paul noticed the familiar blue and yellow of an IKEA showroom in a perimeter mall, and he bounced in his seat at the incongruity. Every time he saw an outlet like a Macdonalds or a Blockbuster Video out of the taxiing plane's windows he laughed, 'So they've got them here too!' When they had disembarked, he was dumbstruck by the distant sight of the sunlit Manhattan skyline through the great glass panorama of the Immigration Hall. Matt too was dumbstruck, but for a different reason. He was tormented by sudden memories.

They spent ages getting through the queues and then fighting their way over to the huge shuttle terminal, to check into their American Blue flight. They only made it with twenty minutes to spare. Matt gasped with relief as they settled into the more confined space of the shuttle jet. Large businessmen were stuffing the overhead bins with coats and briefcases and chatting in slow deliberate voices.

'Matt?'

'What, Paulie?'

'I don't know if you've noticed, but we're surrounded by no one but Americans.'

'That's because we're in America.'

'But they speak just like they do in films. And there's no British faces in sight.'

'Paul?'

'Yes?'

'You know you did a module last semester on Alienation and Authorship in Twentieth-Century Literature.'

'Yes.'

'This is anome. It's quite enjoyable when you get used to it.'

'Ahh. Right. Explains it.' Paul was developing into a true intellectual; he never felt entirely comfortable unless he could put a label to a thing.

Paul was much better on the second flight. He didn't even mind being in the window seat. They watched as the plane rose over the Hudson valley and headed north. They had a magnificent view of Manhattan on their right, and Matt pointed out to him where he and Andy had been. Paul too was struck by the acid greenness of the Statue of Liberty.

The flight took a bit over an hour, and they recovered their bags with no trouble, which was a relief to Matt, as he'd worried whether there had been time at Newark to transfer them. Matt had to explain why they didn't need to go through customs again. They found their way on to the concourse of the quiet Syracuse-Hancock airport, and went to the main doors, Matt looking longingly for the familiar shock of pale golden hair.

There was no sign of Andy at Arrivals. Matt and Paul exchanged glances and shrugged. Andy was often last minute in his arrangements. After an hour they were considerably less cool, and Paul was getting distinctly uneasy. Matt led the way to the Information desk, to ask if there were any messages. There were none.

'I hope he's alright.' Matt muttered.

'What're we going to do, Matt?'

'Wait, my son.' So they waited, as people flowed periodically in and out of the airport doors, and cars and minivan shuttles rolled up outside and emptied. The sun began to sink behind the trees and it began to get cold. Matt was tired and by now, very worried. He had that terrible feeling he had first had as a little boy when he lost his mum in a supermarket. They had no phone number to ring in case of problems, and Matt's mobile didn't work in the States in any case.

'OK, Paulie, this is what we're going to do. First we're going to get a coffee and something to eat before this place shuts up. Second we're going to get a taxi to a motel, and leave a message for Andy at the desk as to where we can be found.'

Paul, twitching at the edge of panic, rallied under evidence of leadership. He quietly followed as Matt found a burger bar and ordered food. Then he waited as Matt talked to a friendly taxi driver and got him to take them to a decent and inexpensive motel. They checked in, and took a double room.

They slept badly and woke in the middle of the night. Matt dozed fitfully and Paul sat up in a chair, hugging his bony knees.

The next morning, they found a nearby breakfast bar, and were impressed and a little heartened by the range, cheapness and size of the dishes. Their accents caused general interest. Upper New York State did not get many European tourists.

'So, what do we do?' Paul asked through a massive mouthful of pancake.

'We go back to the airport and look for a message. Andy can't have turned up last night or he would have come here for us. After that I have a few ideas.' Actually he didn't, but Paul was docile as long as he thought there was a plan.

It was nine when a taxi dropped them at the concourse. There was a message. Andy had been at the airport late in the night, and a message had been left that he would be back at ten that morning. Unfortunately, the receptionist who had their own note had long gone off duty by then and she had not passed it on, so Andy didn't know where to find them.

Long before ten, a large red Mercedes convertible screeched up to the concourse approach and Andy shot out of the door. He was so very distressed that neither Paul nor Matt could be annoyed for long. He hugged them both desperately; people passing into the airport stared.

He wiped his face, opened the trunk and hoisted their bags in. Matt was torn between wanting to kiss him and wanting to demand an explanation. They got in the car, Matt automatically going to the wrong side. Andy gave a little laugh. 'I still do that, guys,' he said. Matt started. It was the familiar Andy tone, but the accent was decidedly transatlantic. Andy seemed unaware of it.

'So what happened?'

'It's complicated. I went on the lake with a few of the guys in the morning, and they forgot to tell me that they were sailing all the way to the Erie Canal. They wouldn't drop me off till we were at the Falls, then I had to find a way of getting back to Burnett and picking up my car. I nearly jumped overboard at one point. I'm really so sorry, I can't tell you.'

'We survived,' said Paul. 'By the way, when did you start speaking American?'

'I'm not.'

'You bloody are.'

'Am I?' They both nodded. 'Well, that crept up on me.'

They gradually relaxed, as he praised them for their initiative. Rural New York State flowed past the car windows, with strange and unfamiliar roadsigns that fascinated Paul. Andy drove confidently and well, talking as he did. His blond fringe was brushed back. He looked extremely cool in his shades and a designer leather jacket, soft black with fleece lining. His father's money was apparently no longer an issue with him. Paul leaned over to Matt and whispered, 'His spots have cleared up too.'

'What's that, Paulie?' asked Andy.

'Are those jeans Evisu?' Paul enquired innocently, 'Yes? Wow. Love the detail.' Paul had got interested in labels after Andy had bought him a wardrobe full of them.

They came down a long hill into Salonica, a small town with a run-down air. The car climbed up another spectacular hill into an extensive campus laid along a ridge overlooking a big, long lake shining in the sunlight, Lake Sebago.

'We'll go to the house first, guys.' They drove out the other end of the campus, past a lake or big reservoir and on to a tree-lined road of big houses. Andy pointed out the fraternity houses, like small mansions, each emblazoned with random Greek letters.

'You in one of them?' asked Paul.

'No. You have to get in them as a freshman, and it's quite a performance unless your father was in the fraternity before you. But here we are.' The car turned on to a big drive with a big house visible through the trees. They pulled up on to a gravelled space, where an assortment of cars, large and small, were parked. The house was new, brick built and with a pediment and colonnade in Colonial style. The scent of pine trees was heavy in the air.

'This yours, then?' asked Matt.

'No, I'm renting it with some other guys. Come in.'

They hauled their bags through the big door into a hall, with stairs curling up to the first floor. A chandelier hung down. It was very aspirational. A sound of animated conversation came through one of the doors off the hall.

Andy pushed the door on the left open.

'Hey guys!' he called. 'Meet my English friends.'

The room was expensively fitted with long sofas, and a big marble fireplace. Several males were standing round the fireplace and some girls occupied the chairs. Tobacco smoke was blue in the air. The biggest male turned round and scanned the arrivals without smiling. All of the men were built to a scale rather larger than the British boys. He nodded at Andy.

'Hey runt. These your friends? Y'found them then.'

Andy burbled on, 'This is Matt, this is Paul. Guys, this is Jim Rosso, who lives here with me, and these guys are Chuck and Fred. The girls are Minnie, Rachel and Sumner.'

Large hands reached out to shake theirs. Then large shoulders turned back to their conversation, which involved a lot of guffaws and the odd shoulder punch. The girls were a lot keener to talk, and they joined them. Paul exercised his magic, and was soon seated between Rachel and Sumner, very comfortable and happy, chatting away as if he'd known them for years.

'I thought you English guys were all withdrawn and quiet.'

'No. Those were the ones they sent to build the Empire. The nice ones stayed at home. It was all a plot.'

'A plot?'

'The British Empire. Yes. It was social engineering on a grand scale. We first quarantined the rich and socially maladjusted in public schools, shifted them under guard to Oxbridge, and then exported them abroad telling them their country expected it of them. They left behind a purified nation of cheery working class types. The real Brits are a warm, huggy folk, deeply into their inner feelings; we cry over a dead sparrow.'

'You are ... so weird!'

'Do you think so? That's so nice.'

Minnie fixed on Matt, while Andy disappeared into the group of young giants. She was slim, had a pale and elfin face, hair cut very short and eyes a remarkable and clear green. She used no makeup. She made Matt feel awkward

'Andy told me all about you, he's missed you real bad since he came here.'

'Life's been pretty crap in England without him too.'

'Pretty crap ... British phrase that is it?'

'Elegant, yes. But it sums up life for me since Andy left. How did you get to know him?'

She smiled, 'Jim there is my man. He lost one of his housemates at the end of last year, and Andy was recommended to him. There's four of us here. Me, Andy, Jim and Lewis, who's somewhere else at the moment. Jim's dad's not short of money, he's a congressman, but the rent for a house like this needs sharing. Especially as it needs a houseboy to keep it running.'

'It's a bit different from what I'm used to.'

'It's a bit different from what most US students are used to. Freshman year I was in a breeze block dorm sharing a bathroom with the girls next door.'

'Which year are you now?'

'Junior, like Jim and the others.' Matt calculated that they must be third years, like him. 'Jim and I got together last year, and I'm new here too this semester. Want a tour?'

They got up and went back into the hall. Andy looked over and made to move towards them, but a vast arm landed on his shoulder and a big hand ruffled his blond head and tugged him back. He shrugged helplessly and gave a half grin as he was detained. Minnie took him through the corresponding reception room on the right hand side of the house with widescreen TV and massive sound system, and into the parlours and pool room beyond. An emptied blue-painted swimming pool could be seen through orangery-style windows, the patio flecked with fallen leaves. Upstairs were three bedroom suites, and two serious bathrooms. Trees climbed up behind the back of the house beyond its yard fence.

'This is Andy's room.' Matt looked at the crammed racks of the open wardrobes, the long line of shoes, the brand new laptop, the widescreen TV and the stacked books. Andy's lifestyle had cranked up many notches. The desk however was littered with more familiar objects, things Matt remembered from England. Matt was moved to see right in the centre a framed picture of Andy, Paul and him laughing and hanging round each other's necks: a memento of when they were all poor and innocent in what seemed now another life. He remembered Andy getting a passerby to take it in the park with a throwaway camera he'd bought. Next to it his heart leaped when he saw a bigger and more professional photo. It was the flattering paparazzo picture of him that had appeared in the press last year. Andy must have tracked down the photographer and got a print. He looked closer and saw hooked round a corner of the frame an old twisted leather wrist band of his, that he'd bought when he was fifteen and thought he'd lost. He felt comforted. He'd never been forgotten, and Andy had never let him go despite all the glamour of his celebrity summer.

Minnie watched him keenly. He smiled, and she softened slightly. 'You can't imagine how he's been this last week, waiting for you.'

'What happened yesterday, Minnie, if you don't mind me asking.'

'Nothing unusual. Chuck decided to take a run on his boat up Sebago.'

'I saw the lake. It's long, but I can't see how it took the boat all day to get to the top.'

Minnie gave him a slow look. 'Chuck is never in a hurry. It's not the fresh air and fishing that takes him and his friends out on the water.'

Matt waited for her to continue. 'Laws are strict here in New York State. You can't buy a beer till you're twenty-one, and drinking in public gets you in jail. But the sheriff and the State Troopers don't bother you if you're partying on the water, unless you do something real stupid.'

'Didn't anyone tell Andy he was on a booze cruise?'

'Booze cruise? Nice. I'd not heard that one. Booze was part of it anyway. But you need to talk to Andy.'

They returned to the others. Andy had finally detached himself from the Americans.

'Fancy a look round Burnett?'

'Yes please. Minnie's given me the house tour.'

She smiled pleasantly at Andy, 'I guess you guys need to be together for a while.' Andy called over to Paul. But Rachel and Sumner didn't want to let him go. Chuck and Fred looked displeased.

'The girls'll give me the tour, you and Matt go on.'

Rachel, a dark and handsome woman, grinned and chirped, 'We'll meet you guys top of the museum in a couple hours.'

They walked back to the campus, through some big and shabby Victorian buildings around a lawn and inspected the twice-life size statue of the founder, Cornelius Burnett, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. They carried on as far as a tall Venetian clock tower, in grey stone rather than brick, which burst into a carillon on the hour. They didn't say much. The sunlit campus was alive with strolling groups of students. A small demo was going on by the clock tower and they paused to take and read pamphlets. Announcements and adverts were carefully chalked in different colours on the pavement of the main path. It was all very charming and very different from a British campus. The students were better dressed for one thing; it was a rich school.

Andy pulled him into a large building with a low battlemented tower, a distant echo of Oxford on the Finger Lakes. Through a stone hall he led him into a tall chapel with many lancets figured in stained glass. They sat at the back under a gallery. It was very peaceful.

'I come in here a lot, Matt, when y'know, it gets a bit much,'

'You lonely, Andy?'

'Lot of the time, yes. God, I do miss you. It's like a non-stop ache.'

Matt did not bring up the matter of the Caribbean Andy of the celebrity papers, although it leapt to mind. Instead he said, 'Just like me. What can we do?'

'I dunno, I dunno.' His alien accent had suddenly dispersed, and he was to that extent Matt's Andy once again.

A clatter of wooden keys above was followed by the gentle surge of organ music. The organ scholar was practising. He or she was good. They sat entranced as the invisible musician ran through a repertoire of sacred music. They held hands, and Andy's golden head resumed its accustomed place on Matt's shoulder. He rejoiced in the familiar scent of Andy's hair. No one interrupted their moments of happiness. Finally the organ stopped and powered down. They got up and went out in search of Paul.

They found Paul and his new girlfriends having a hoot in the art gallery and museum, enjoying an unparalleled view of the lake from the top floor. Distant steam clouds on the horizon billowed up from a major power station towards Lake Ontario. To the left at the foot of the ridge was the grid of Salonica, a low rise town with many wooden church spires.

'Good view up here,' said Andy.

'It's amazing,' said Paul.

'Let's do lunch.'

Lunch was in the campus hotel. Andy's card settled the bill. They all returned late to the house, to find the men all gone. The girls took their cars and kissed Paul goodbye, insisting that he come and join them for the evening. He looked at Matt and Andy for permission, and they nodded, but said they had other plans. They made tea, and Matt and Paul heard all about Andy's summer. But Matt noticed that there was no mention of the Hon. Edward Roedenbeck. Yet again he felt a spasm of jealousy, which he suppressed sternly.

The two of them said farewell to Paul and found a basement beer restaurant in Collegetown, at the eastern edge of the campus. They talked over their beers, fries and burgers till late. Matt described his research in detail. Andy listened attentively and proudly. Matt stared into those beloved blue eyes, glittering at him behind the veil of Andy's fringe, and was tormented by pulses of emotion: desire, passion and deep love, but also fear and unease. Why was he oppressed by such ominous feelings?

Every now and then students stopped by and greeted Andy as they went past the table. Andy was clearly already well known amongst a certain set. Matt thought they all looked wealthy and self-absorbed, but he was willing to admit his prejudice.

They walked back and paused at a bridge over a chasm filled with churning water, white in the moonlight. It was very chilly. Andy was wearing his old blue corduroy top and the scarf Matt had given him for his birthday, in honour of the reunion.

'The first day I came, a freshman jumped off this bridge. Doesn't often happen, but they tell stories about it a lot.'

'Andy, come home to me, please. I'll beg on my knees if I have to.'

Andy was quiet for quite a while, and his expression was fixed. Eventually he sighed and shrugged. 'I can't Matt. There's no going back to Britain; at least not in the immediate future. They've not bothered you since I went, have they? But they've got you on file. Once I reappear, they'll be camped on your door. The celebrity mags even here have paparazzi hanging round Collegetown every semester. Burnett is the place to go if you're wealthy and your SATs don't get you into Princeton or Yale. I've been in a few celebrity spreads. But at least the US press have a healthy fear of litigation. They're very respectful, and the Peacher name is very powerful.

Never mind that now, I've got something for you. Well, actually it was dad's idea. He sued the two worst tabloids, and scared them into a big settlement. He's no fan of yours, as you can imagine, but he said you suffered as badly as I did, and I was to give you this.'

Matt took a blank envelope from Andy. He opened it under a streetlamp. It was a money order in his own name for 75,000GBP.

'Dad said that it's your share of the settlement. Don't turn it down. It's written in your blood. He also said that if you don't want to spend it, you can use it to sue the bastards on your own behalf, and he hopes you double it. My hope is that you'll use it to come and see me, as often as you can. One day, when I'm finished here, we can make plans again.'

They slept together in Andy's bed, with the wind rustling the trees round the house as they made love and dozed together. The passion at least was still there. Andy was ripping his clothes off him before they had even reached his room. As soon as they were naked, he knelt in front of Matt, thoroughly reacquainting his mouth and tongue with every part of Matt's genitals, and then pushing him down on the bed and devoted himself to Matt's rear. He was insatiable, wanting as much as he could of the comfort of Matt's presence inside him, forcing him to penetrate him hard and fast, impaling himself on Matt as he lay on his back, and rising and falling frantically on his cock with heaving gasps of lust as Matt pushed up into him. He shouted loud obscenities as he spurted ropes of semen over Matt's chest without so much as touching himself, such was his passion.

But even as they coupled, writhed and cried out in their animal abandon, a part of Matt's mind was wondering what had happened that Andy was willing to walk away from this mutual ecstasy and fulfilment. What had gone so wrong? He woke nestled into Andy's body as the light grew outside the window. He felt like crying as his peace of mind was washed away by the mixed streams of sadness and happiness that poured simultaneously into his waking mind.

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